Climate Change and Coffee Farmers
Dealing with climate change is an ever-present thought in the minds of many coffee farmers. Because farmers typically pay very close attention to weather patterns, even those who don’t know the science behind climate change can point to specific changes in rainfall patterns, temperature swings, etc. that they’ve noticed over the past few years. The success of any year’s coffee crop depends heavily on how well the weather decides to “behave.” Climate change is adding a lot of uncertainty to that behavior.
The success of a coffee crop often has larger implications than is first apparent. Coffee grows in rural areas where the economy of entire towns—and sometimes entire regions—often centers around coffee. This means that when a coffee crop is less successful in a given year or series of years, the effects are felt not just at the farm level, but at the local and regional levels, as well. If a heavy unseasonal rain knocks the developing coffee cherries off of the trees, for example, that means there will be less work available when harvest time arrives. Workers who depend on this type of labor each year will need to find other work or go without that income, potentially having to migrate or go with less food or keep a child home instead of sending them to school. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates just how far the impacts of climate change can reach beyond the borders of the farm.
Climate Change and the Future of Coffee
Even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today, global temperatures would not stabilize for at least another 40 years, meaning today’s coffee farmers will have to deal with unpredictable weather patterns for the rest of their working lives. That’s a lot of risk for farmers to take on and something that needs to be addressed if we want people to stay in the coffee industry.
Counter Culture’s Role in Addressing Climate Change
One of the roles that Counter Culture plays in addressing this problem is to offer climate change adaptation workshops to our purchasing partners. As discussed previously, one of the ways to lower the risk of staying in coffee is to help farmers adapt to and be resilient against changing weather patterns. Often, this adaptation takes the form of changing or improving agricultural practices—maintaining soil humidity through ground cover or stepping up pest control, for example—so that too much or too little rain has a less devastating effect. Farmers can also alter processing practices, for example, using solar dryers or washing methods that require less water. Ultimately, however, farmers can’t control the weather, and this is where resiliency becomes important. If the coffee crop at a farm has low output or low quality for a given year or series of years, what strategies can be put in place to ensure that this doesn’t devastate that farm or surrounding region?
One of the most often cited resiliency strategies is income diversification, which means getting away from total economic dependence on coffee alone. While income diversification isn’t the only solution, it’s a good strategy for farmers to at least consider and is one of the strategies that was brought up at the second climate change adaptation workshop that Counter Culture hosted at the Finca Nueva Armenia farm in October.
Our Second Climate Change Adaptation Workshop
Finca Nueva Armenia is a large farm in La Democracia, Guatemala. The farm is owned by two brothers, and many of the farm workers live in the nearby town of Santo Domingo. In many ways, Finca Nueva Armenia is about as environmentally sustainable as farms come—they’re certified organic and Smithsonian Bird Friendly—which means they’re already doing some of the best agricultural practices. They’re also one of the lowest elevation farms Counter Culture buys from, which makes them vulnerable to climate change. That’s also why Counter Culture and the Recinos brothers were interested in doing an adaptation workshop. Over the course of two days, Javier and Jorge Recinos, along with 10 of their workers, brainstormed, analyzed, and ultimately identified what adaptation strategies would work best for Finca Nueva Armenia.
Two of the four final strategies that developed out of the workshop were born out of the workers’ concern about unpredictable rainfall and how that could affect their ability to get steady work at the farm. To counter the growing unpredictability of rainfall patterns, some additional business ideas were conceived, including breeding and selling chickens and expanding the on-farm nursery to sell plant seedlings. These ideas are great examples of adaptation strategies that also build resilience—chickens and seedlings are much less susceptible to changes like unexpected rain or unusually high temperatures, which means that workers would have a more predictable income. It also means that one low-volume or low-quality year would not endanger the farm or the town, because there would be other sources of income available.
Just as in our first workshop, we came away having learned a lot about how to move forward with climate change adaptation. Although the threat of climate change isn’t going away anytime soon, it seemed that those involved in the workshops also left feeling more empowered and encouraged to continue working on adaptation and resilience strategies.